Once just a haven for intrepid backpackers, nowadays Thailand is one of the most-visited tourist destinations in the world. Different parts of Thailand cater to different crowds—from wide-eyed adventurers on a big trip to throngs of package tourists on a lazy holiday. That means to get the experience you’re looking for, you have to know where to go!
Yep… there’s the island of Koh Phi Phi, the Full Moon Party, or Bangkok’s tourist street of Khao San; these places get mentioned every time. They can be fun, even though they’re a little tacky and overhyped. But there’s much more to Thailand, and in this guide I will try to highlight some other places (and a few to avoid), as well as give you some general Thailand travel tips.
If you’re a grizzled explorer, then you might wince at some of the tourist crowds in Thailand. But this popularity does mean that travelling there is super easy—even if you have little travel experience. Getting from point A to point B usually can’t be more straightforward: you can easily arrange tours or transportation at your hotel or hostel, or at any number of small local travel agents. Accommodation is everywhere, many people speak at least a bit of English, and yes, safety levels are high. Thailand may be exciting and exotic, but you probably won’t find it too difficult to navigate.
By the way, if you have never travelled solo but want to give it a try, Thailand will teach you. It’s probably the best solo travel destination I know of. Stay in hostels or guesthouses (instead of hotels) and you are guaranteed to meet lots of people.
Ultimately, Thailand is perhaps a rite of passage. If you’ve already lived with goat herders in Kazakhstan or battled frostbite on Mt Everest, then maybe it’s not quite for you. But if you’re simply looking for something fun, different, and adventurous, then it’s the perfect country to visit. So get ready for a carefree, foodalicious, touristy-but-amazing, sweet spicy stir fry of tropical travel goodness…
Why you should visit Thailand
- Thai culture and street life. From golden Buddhist temples to buzzing markets, you will feel like you are in a different world.
- A haven for relaxation. Escape the big city bustle on the islands, or go to northern Thailand and live among the rice fields and bamboo huts.
- Great party scene. Bangkok, Phi Phi Island and Koh Phangan are renowned (notorious?) for wild partying. For a more laid-back and social vibe, hit up the fun bar scenes in Chiang Mai or Pai, or find your favorite beach bar on the islands of Koh Tao or Koh Lanta.
- Excellent beaches. I think Malaysia and The Philippines have especially stunning beaches, but Thailand is not too far behind.
- Delicious food. Thought you knew Thai food from your local Thai takeaway? Think again, because nothing compares to the real deal! Just getting a whiff of that fresh lemongrass or sweet basil will surely make you salivate…
This rough map shows just a few of the major points of interest. Looking at it from a bird’s eye view, you can see several clusters of popular destinations in Thailand.
While you can create any sort of route you want, many travellers do hit up the north around Chiang Mai first (which has more cultural sightseeing, temples, hiking, etc.) before heading to the south. It just makes sense to keep those beach hammocks for last…
This region is more mountainous, has cooler temperatures, and is generally more relaxed. Its main city Chiang Mai has super low prices and a pleasant atmosphere, making it a great base from which to explore. With its hazy mountains and lush valleys, the region is popular for jungle trekking and for visiting indigenous hill tribes. The small town of Pai is a fun backpacker hangout, though it’s getting busier every year. Nomadic Matt recently posted an honest take on Pai, noting that it’s the landscapes around Pai and not just the town itself that makes this place so worthwhile.
Northwest of Chiang Mai is the Mae Hong Son province, Thailand’s least populous region. For a great road trip, you can rent scooters and ride the Mae Hong Son loop through these tranquil backwaters of Thailand, starting and ending in Chiang Mai or Pai. The small town of Soppong on this road is an amazing base for hiking and caving adventures.
Chiang Rai is another city well worth visiting in this region.
Central Thailand is of course home to the capital Bangkok. Also of particular note are the archaeological sites of Ayutthaya and Sukhothai, both large areas filled with the crumbled remains of ancient Buddhist temples. About 120km from Bangkok is the small riverside city of Kanchanaburi, made famous by the movie Bridge over the River Kwai. It’s got a small traveller scene and is worth checking out.
The south of Thailand is all about the beaches and islands. It can be roughly thought of as having two parts.
The west coast along the Andaman Sea has some of the most developed resorts in Thailand, with Phuket being the most commercial area. Krabi province is famous for its coastline with dramatic karst limestone cliffs. It’s also known for Khao Sok National Park, arguably the easiest place to go jungle trekking, with the opportunity to sleep in a jungle lodge or even in a stilt house on a jungle lake. Off Krabi’s coast you’ll find Phi Phi Island, which is a beautiful island, though its high prices and 24/7 party culture are not to everyone’s liking. Neighboring Koh Lanta is equally developed but cheaper and more laid-back, while smaller islands such as Koh Lipe and Koh Kradan remain rustic and least developed.
On the east coast. you’ll find another smattering of islands. Koh Samui has its own airport and is home mainly to mid-range and upmarket holiday resorts. Koh Phangang, in turn, is known for its infamous monthly Full Moon Party, but is also a beautiful island waiting to be explored. Koh Tao is one of the cheapest and best places in the world to learn scuba diving, but is equally a great island just to hang out. Of the three east coast islands, I think it has the most charm.
Hostel recommendationsbrowse thailand hostels »
|Suneta Hostel Khaosan||Bangkok||Modern yet cozy hostel, away from busy Khaosan Road but close enough to walk there. Lovely common room with several pet guinea pigs.|
|Yard Hostel||Bangkok||In a less touristy part of Bangkok with wonderful courtyard garden. Read about my stay at Yard Hostel.|
|Green Tulip House||Chiang Mai||Colorful Chiang Mai hostel with a great atmosphere and rooftop lounge.|
|Spicy Pai||Pai||Just slightly out of town, but loved staying here among the rice fields. Social backpacker atmosphere.|
|Chill Out House||Koh Lanta||Hostel built entirely from driftwood with friendly communal atmosphere. Near the beach & very hippie.|
|Shiralea Backpackers Resort||Koh Phangang||Modern hostel with swimming pool, dorms and privates.|
|Baan Rub Aroon||Chiang Rai||Quiet mansion hostel away from the city hustle and bustle.|
|Goodtime Beach Hostel||Koh Tao||The highest-rated hostel on Koh Tao, on the main beach.|
Not into hostels but don’t want to spend too much? If you look around a bit, you can find great guesthouses and bungalows for under $35/night. (Prices do depend on season.) Some specific examples below.search on agoda »
|Guesthouse DD Hut||Koh Tao||Mini-resort with modern bungalows right on Sairee Beach, with private balconies and sea views. $33/n|
|The Earth House||Koh Tao||Thai-style bamboo bungalows among the palm trees with cozy beer garden. $12/n.|
|Railay Viewpoint Resort||Railay Beach (Krabi)||Rooms available around $35/n near one of south Thailand’s most popular beaches.|
|High Life Bungalow||Koh Phangang||Mini-resort on top of a cliff overlooking the beach with hammocks, swimming pool & sea views. Starting at $24/n.|
|Rainforest Boutique Hotel||Chiang Mai||Chiang Mai has possibly the largest offering of budget to mid-range accommodation. This is one great example but there are hundreds more.|
|Khao Sok Palm Garden Resort||Khao Sok National Park||There’s a lot of affordable jungle hut style accommodation in beautiful Khao Sok National Park. Another example is Monkey Mansion.|
For great hotel deals in Thailand I recommend searching on Booking.com or, better yet, their sister company Agoda (which is specialised in Asia). You’ll find hotels and guesthouses there which you won’t find anywhere else.
Places to visit in Thailand
Everyone will have their own opinions on where to go in Thailand, but I think these are just some of the best places to visit and top things to do:
Explore Bangkok’s Chinatown
For a great taste of the vibrant hustle-and-bustle of Bangkok, go to the Chinatown district and get lost in its maze of markets and narrow alleys. You’ll see fishmongers chopping fish, welders fixing equipment, and strange foodstuffs for sale—all amid a sea of Thai and Chinese neon signage.
See less-touristy Bangkok
On a first visit, you will probably be drawn to Khao San Road, Bangkok’s former hippie backpacker district which is now slowly gentrifying. It’s a fun and wild area where you can browse souvenir shops, eat some fried insects, maybe buy a fake ID, or party into the late hours.
But there is, of course, more to Bangkok. Recently I stayed in more laid-back Ari, a neighorhood with trendy cafes and bars popular with locals and expats. This company does amazing bicycle tours taking you into areas few others go, while sites like WithLocals let you find local tour guides who can help you unlock the ‘hidden Bangkok’.
Go caving, kayaking, or hiking in Soppong
This remote town in northern Thailand (also known as Pang Mapha) is set amid a veritable playground of caves, rivers, and jungle trails. I loved going on a caving tour here; I found myself crawling through the narrowest crevices to reach secret waterfalls deep underground. The people at Cave Lodge are the local experts. Tham Lod Cave is a more accessible and walkable cave, where you can see a spectacular swarm of thousands of swifts at its entrance at dusk. You can also visit Tham Lod by way of some organised day tours from Pai.
Rent a motorbike and explore
The countryside is best explored using your own transportation. Small motorbikes are easily rented, even without a driving license. In northern Thailand, the town of Pai and the city of Chiang Rai have great surrounding landscapes and waterfalls easily reached by scooter.
Visit Buddhist temples
The Grand Palace and Wat Prakeaw in Bangkok are wonderful with their golden gleaming Buddha statues, though can get incredibly rammed with tourists. It’s best to go in the early morning. Doi Suthep on the hills near Chiang Mai isn’t quite as crowded, nor are the temple ruins of Sukhothai in Central Thailand (as it’s a large area).
Learn to cook Thai food
You can find cooking courses in many places, though I did one on a farm outside of Chiang Mai. Try to find a cooking course that includes a trip to a local market, as you’ll be introduced to all kinds of fascinating ingredients.
See a Thai kickboxing fight
This is no WWE or Luche Libre wrestling: you will surely see some dizzying kicks and punches being dealt. It’s fun to watch the matches but equally fun to watch the crowds, as they get really into it. You can find Muay Thai fights in lots of places around the country.
Go rock climbing in Railay
The karst cliffs around Railay have long been popular with climbers. While they are mostly for experienced climbers, as a complete newbie you can also take courses here. Railay’s spectacular cliffs also make for a great backdrop to its wonderful relaxing beaches. Railay is slowly getting more expensive, though some backpackers seek refuge on neighboring Ton Sai beach where low-cost accommodation is easier to find.
Go island hopping on the west coast
The west coast has the biggest variety of islands, making it the best place to go island hopping. Koh Phi Phi is the most famous island, but there are many others. Koh Lanta is a big and pleasantly developed island just next door, with mid-range resorts along Khlong Khong beach and a fun backpacker enclave along Long Beach.
For more of a Robinson Crusoe feeling you’ve got islands like Ko Hai, Ko Yao Yai or Ko Raya. You’ll likely need to pay at least 800 to 1000 Baht a night for a bungalow on any of these islands, but you’ll have a quiet island (almost) to yourself. For more island tips, consult some of the links at the bottom of this post.
Get scuba certified (at ocean-bottom prices)
Thailand is the perfect country to learn how to SCUBA dive. Koh Tao is the most popular place to do so, with many dozens of internationally accredited dive schools. It takes just 3 days of training to become a certified Open Water diver. Read This: 6 Tips For Learning To Scuba Dive On Koh Tao
Experience Thailand’s unique festivals
Songkran (13-15 April) is the water festival during which everyone fights everyone with water pistols and water balloons. Foreigners are a favorite target so be sure to come well-armed! On Yi Peng festival (on different dates each year in November) thousands of lanterns are released into the night sky in Chiang Mai.
Bus travel is cheap and convenient, and can be easily booked from hostels or agencies. Air travel is very cheap as well and AirAsia is the main budget airline in the region. AirAsia also offers convenient island transfer packages that include a flight from Bangkok and connecting ferries to some of the popular island destinations. Trains can be a good option sometimes as well: for instance, it’s easy to get from Bangkok to Chiang Mai by overnight train, which have reasonably comfortable sleeping bunks. For local transport, use taxis or tuk-tuks.
Don’t worry too much about travel logistics. Thailand sees lots of tourists so there are always plenty of options for getting to where you need to be. Your place of accommodation can usually help with bookings. You’ll also typically find lots of mom ‘n pop agencies everywhere letting you easily book tours or tickets.
While English is not so commonly spoken by Thai people, language issues are still fairly minimal. Most signs will also be in English, and anyone working in the tourism or service industry will pretty much be able to understand what you want to buy/order/etc. so long as you speak slowly. Many travel related companies and hostels also have foreign staff who speak English or other languages.
Thailand is generally quite safe. Crime does obviously occur (just as in any country), so keep your belongings secure and always apply common sense.
While Thailand is relatively worry-free, scams targeting tourists can be a problem. Be firm with taxi drivers or they may try to rip you off. Also, make sure you take some photos of any bicycle, bike, water scooter or anything else you rent prior to any use, as a popular scam is to claim you have caused damage and need to pay compensation.
Cost of travel
You can travel in Thailand on a backpacking budget of about $30 USD a day (which is €27 or £20). This assumes you stay in either hostels or basic guesthouse rooms and avoid eating only at tourist restaurants (eat at local eateries or street stalls instead).
The cheapest parts of Thailand are the center and the north. In Chiang Mai, for example, you can still find dorm beds starting at $4, while the cheapest private room might be about $7 here. If you’re on a shoestring budget, you could potentially survive on $20/day in central or northern Thailand.
Things are more expensive in the south however, especially along the popular coasts and islands. Prices on Phi Phi Island, for instance, have drifted towards the mid-range, with dorm beds costing around $20 and a basic private room around $40 there. Newer purpose-built hostels in Bangkok charge around $15 for a bed per night—still cheap by Western standards but somewhat expensive for Southeast Asia.
If you are more of a ‘flashpacker‘ and often go for mid-range accommodation, or if you spend most of your time in the more expensive south, then your daily spend per person is likely to be closer to $50/day.
You can find a lot more cost of travel details, including charts, in my Southeast Asia cost of travel overview with up-to-date prices for 2017.
Are you insured?
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When to visit / rainy seasons
Thailand can be enjoyed year-round. Most people will avoid the rainiest months of the year, but even in the off-season, Thailand can be well worth visiting.
September and October are the rainiest in the whole country, and monsoon rains occur quite frequently during this time. The rainy months run a little longer in the south of Thailand, though this is different depending on whether you’re on the west or east coast.
On the west coast (such as in Krabi, Koh Phi Phi or Koh Lanta), rains start becoming more frequent around May and lasts roughly until October. It’s low season on the west coast during this time.
On the east coast (e.g. Koh Samui, Koh Tao), the rainy season runs from September and lasts a little longer, until December.
That said, we are talking about general climate patterns here.”Rainy season” means the average precipitation is quite a bit higher during this period, but it doesn’t mean it literally rains all the time.
The weather can still be entirely acceptable in the shoulder or even offseason. For example, I spent extensive time on the west coast in May and it was fine—barely a drop of rain, and just wonderful sunshine throughout. I’ve been on the east coast in December and it was great. On another trip I was in the north for the whole of October, smack in the middle of the rainy season, but had only a few rainy days. The rice fields were lush and green.
If you have just a week to spend in Thailand and need it to be ‘perfect’, you’ll probably want to target the main tourist season (roughly December to February). But if you’re travelling longer you can worry about the season a bit less, as a rainy day or two will probably have less of a dramatic impact on your travel plans. One of the nice things about tropical showers is that while they’re intense they are also often short-lived, and things dry up pretty quickly. Travelling outside of high season means fewer crowds and often lower prices, so there are really just different pros and cons to every time of year.
A final point about the weather: if you’re about to depart for Thailand and your weather app shows thunderclouds for the whole week, don’t panic just yet! In hot climates like these it’s common to have some thunder in the evenings, but good weather during the day—however, weather sites will then just use the thunderclouds icon for that entire day, which can look pretty alarming on a weekly forecast.
In closing, these are a few places that might be less compelling to the independent traveller (if you ask me)…
- Patong (and much of Phuket). Overdeveloped, overpriced and, well… full of idiots. Within minutes after arriving I saw a drunk shirtless man stumble into a McDonald’s repeatedly yelling “GIVE ME A FUCKING BURGER!”. This basically set the tone for Patong, and I didn’t feel much at home here.
- Koh Samui – a beautiful island, though most people fly in here directly and don’t leave their upmarket resorts, making the island a little uninteresting if you’re not on a package holiday. Go to nearby Koh Tao for a vibrant/developed but still pleasant island.
- Pattaya – yarrrr, here be sex tourists. Other than that, it’s also your typical seaside resort filled with large hotels rather than smaller-scale hostels or guesthouses.
- South-East Asia Itinerary Suggestions – For 2 Weeks To 2 Months
Going on a larger trip? Find out what’s next after Thailand…
- Travel Zen: Avoiding FOMO & Being Happier On The Road
Read this if you’re finding it impossible to decide where to go
- Photo Impressions of Thailand, Laos, Cambodia
A mini photo essay
- Southeast Asia Backpacking: Cost Of Travel Overview
See how costs in Thailand compare to other countries in the region
- View all of my posts about Thailand »
Around the web
General Thailand guides & activities
- Bangkok’s Most Weird Attractions – Renegade Travels
Some genuinely unusual and interesting sights.
- Top 25 Things To Do In Thailand – The Crazy Tourist
- My absurdly long guide to Thailand
This Reddit thread is a goldmine of information.
- How much to budget for a month in Thailand – Backpacker Banter
- How Much Does it Cost to Travel Thailand on a Budget? [Infographic]
- Where To Stay In Bangkok – Nerd Nomads
Great descriptions of Bangkok’s neighborhoods with suggested hotels
- All you need to know about the Full Moon Party – Elsewhere Man
A level-headed take on the infamous beach party
- Bamboo rafting near Chiang Mai report – Tieland to Thailand
- Facing Your Fears: 7 Things to Do in Thailand That Will Push Your Limits – Travel Freak
- 10 Tips for Visiting Pai – One Modern Couple
- The Secret Islands Of Thailand
More lesser-known islands where you can escape the crowds
- Koh Kradan: Thailand’s Secret Paradise
Great report on a less-visited island on the western coast.
- The Ultimate Guide to Koh Lipe – Getting Stamped
Great guide to Thailand’s most southern island, near Malaysia
- Koh Tao Attractions – My Top 15 – Latina Abroad
More info on Thailand: check out the WikiVoyage page for some more destination info. Looking for a more comprehensive guide? Then grab a copy of the Lonely Planet guide to Thailand, available on paperback or as ebook.